THE UNFORGIVEN took a while to earn absolution. In 1960, critics dissed, the star and producers were miffed and its iconoclastic director actively disliked it. Public response put it a sedate 21st of the years moneymakers. Loyal fans (count me) and a new array of reviewers have salvaged the once-tattered reputation in recent years, marking a very good, certainly unusual adult western that—if ragged around the edges due to conflicting artistic temperaments—is still a compelling piece of fractured Americana.
Alan LeMay wrote numerous screenplays, including howlers like North West Mounted Police and Reap The Wild Wind, but he also penned the novel “The Searchers” and the one this was adapted from, which intrigued Burt Lancaster to co-produce and star in. After scenarist J.P. Miller and director Delbert Mann left the project in frustration, the writing was turned over to formerly blacklisted Ben Maddow. Lining up a striking and offbeat cast, Burt and partners hired John Huston to direct, shooting down in rugged and dangerous Durango, Mexico.*
Like The Searchers, the story is set in west Texas in the decade following the Civil War, and deals with homesteaders vs. Indians, in this case the fierce Kiowas. As in the classic Ford-Wayne picture, the theme is ingrained frontier racial antagonism and ruthless action churning around a family cleaved by mixed loyalties. Production squabbles set in quickly, and the experience of making it better suited a title like “The Misbegotten”.
Lancaster and Huston battled over interpretation, with Burt’s considerable ego vexing the director. Where LeMay, Miller and Mann had accented harsh authenticity (Miller ascribing “an absolutely unfriendly environment with some of the most ferocious goddam Indians that this country ever produced”), Huston wanted the Maddow script “to turn it into the story of racial intolerance… to comment on the real nature of community ‘morality'”. The liberal Lancaster shared the races-conflict angle but wanted it framed in a more muscular tone. He had more than just showboating and social comment in mind, since his money was behind it, and it was soon obvious Huston was more interested in using the job to square gambling debts and as a convenient front for his scheme to smuggle per-Columbian art out of Mexico.
The female lead was Audrey Hepburn, rather out of her milieu but game nonetheless, playing a part-Kiowa half-sister adopted by Lancaster’s family, the ‘Zachary’s’. The 67-year-old silent film queen Lillian Gish played the mother; Doug McClure, 24, was getting a big lift from obscurity as the younger brother. While the he-men butted heads, further mischief reared when Hepburn’s horse, a nervous stallion with the fitting name of ‘Diablo’ that once belonged to Cuban dictator Batista, bucked her off, fracturing four vertebrae in her back. Her weeks of recuperation ate up $250,000 of the budget, which would balloon to $5,000,000. Huston’s mistress-secretary went after him with a knife at one point, and bandits stuck up the pay office, running away with the company payroll.
While fraying relations between the insistent leading man/producer and the mercurial director had them batting clout, Lancaster and Huston both had to temper their tempers around third-billed Audie Murphy, playing the volatile middle brother. Huston’s previous experience handling the pindrop-sensitive, PTSD-haunted vet guided him to a sterling job in The Red Badge Of Courage, back when Murphy was still new to the craft. After a decade and another 21 roles, Audie had performing skill honed but his WW2 trauma still played hell with his psyche and raised hackles with those who made the wrong moves at the right time. Typical was an incident that flared in a scene that had Lancaster slap Murphy. It didn’t go over well, and Burt was lucky to walk away without getting permanently air conditioned by one of the loaded pistols Murphy carried (and occasionally, just to add a point to an exclamation, fired over other actor’s heads).
Even with a dissatisfied, artifact-occupied director and confused actors, and despite some choppy editing, the drama holds, and the acting is excellent—Murphy is particularly impressive; he has some scenes that are the best in his career. Filling in flavor around the vigorously embodied leads are vivid slices from Charles Bickford, John Saxon**, Joseph Wiseman (deliriously weird again, as a deranged Bible-quoting scarecrow who swirls in on the dust), Albert Salmi, Kipp Hamilton, June Walker and Carlos Rivas.
Running 125 minutes, displaying humor, anguish, bravado, righteous outrage and eeriness, capped with an exciting, imaginatively staged battle at the climax. A benefit is Dimitri Tiomkin’s lush score, recorded in Rome with an Italian symphony orchestra. His signature bursts of flamboyance and lyrical sweep hold an odd European flavor more than a typically western feel this time, yet it’s fitting for the baroque nature and handling of the out-sized dramatics. A haunting reverb effect has it sound distant and removed, suiting a tragic story coming out a long-gone world. It was a rich year for Dimitri, adding this to his lilting accompaniment on The Sundowners and his majestic career-topper for The Alamo.
* I don’t see it mentioned anywhere else, but Lancaster & Huston don’t seem to get any credit for bringing blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow back out of the shadows. That omission is curious as 1960 was the same year that Dalton Trumbo’s screen credit was famously dual-revived by Burt’s buddy Kirk Douglas for duty on Spartacus and Otto Preminger in Exodus. Huston’s sulk with this project fed a losing streak, as he’d just struck out with The Barbarian And The Geisha and The Roots Of Heaven, both failing with critics, the public and in the director’s estimation. Reports from the crew, cited in his and Burt’s bio’s, show he was really off his feed during this project. Even so the movie has much to recommend it (those other two are both better than their reps, as well). One highlight for him was pulling a prank on Burt & Audie during an invitation golf tournament outside Durango. Renting a plane, he dropped thousands of obscenity-inscribed ping pong balls on the fairway. Sponsoring the event, Burt was not amused. We’d like to think Murphy took some potshots at a few of the bouncing little insults.
**Like McClure, John Saxon at 24 was getting a strong buildup. His role in this film was cut in two by editing to favor Lancaster (Ego Alert!). Too Brando-brooding for feature film success, like McClure his career soon veered into mostly television. He passed away in 2020, at 83.